Shallow market makes deep impact tough

The Baltimore Sun

Orioles vice president Jim Duquette still has the lists of select members of the 2005 free-agent class taped to his otherwise barren office walls. Some of the names on the lists are crossed out, the result of a player on the club's radar eschewing the Orioles' interest and signing elsewhere.

The most extensive list was reserved for pitchers, while the others documented the team's outfield and first base options. If nothing else, the lists remind Duquette of the front office's daily juggling act last offseason to fill a plethora of holes with a thin free-agent class and precious few trade chips at the Orioles' disposal.

One year later, few of the variables have changed, and the challenges for the front office are nearly as daunting. The 2006 free-agent class, which can field offers from other teams starting today, is not deep, and the price tags on its best members continue to soar. The Orioles are intent on building around their highly valued young pitching and star shortstop Miguel Tejada, not trading them. And more than a month removed from a ninth consecutive losing season, the Orioles still have holes, though they seemingly are not as gaping as at this time last season.

"What you don't want to happen is what we feel like happened to us last year," Duquette said. "We had so many holes to fill and we only filled so many. At the end, we were sitting there picking out the best of what was left. That's how we almost made a mistake with [Jeromy] Burnitz. You end up having to overpay for guys that have an iffy track record.

"I hope we can go out and be aggressive in the areas of the market that will allow us to be aggressive. If there is a willingness to sign early, whether it is a reliever, a starting pitcher or a position player, we feel like we are going to try to do that."

Starting today, the Orioles, often maligned for not being aggressive or decisive enough at this time of year, say that they will accelerate their pursuit of a starting pitcher, a left fielder, a first baseman, a backup catcher and several relievers. None is a priority over the others, Duquette and executive vice president Mike Flanagan maintain.

"I think we are going to focus more initially on the bullpen, but I don't know if we have worked out [priority] one, two, three or four," Flanagan said. "We are just worried about getting better. We need to get better."

Seeking starter

Sharing the opinion of most baseball executives, Flanagan described the current free-agent conditions as "a lot of demand right now and not a great supply," a scenario that could lead to a trade-heavy offseason. Duquette predicted that the trend could start as early as tomorrow, when executives from all 30 teams descend on Naples, Fla., for the start of baseball's general manager meetings.

Still, there are plenty of free agents available who interest the Orioles. In their quest to upgrade the bullpen in front of closer Chris Ray, the Orioles haven't ruled out many relievers, but right-handers Justin Speier (Toronto Blue Jays), Chad Bradford (New York Mets) and Joe Borowski (Florida Marlins) and left-handers Jamie Walker (Detroit Tigers), Scott Schoeneweis (Cincinnati Reds) and Alan Embree (San Diego Padres) are among their top targets.

Though the acquisition of Jaret Wright gives the Orioles six starters along with Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera, Adam Loewen, Kris Benson and Rodrigo Lopez, the Orioles will likely trade Lopez (the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers have inquired) or use him in the bullpen.

There is still a good chance that they will sign another pitcher, though it won't be one of the top three free-agent arms - Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jason Schmidt or Barry Zito. The Orioles did not bid on Matsuzaka, the 26-year-old Japanese phenom, and likely won't aggressively pursue Schmidt or Zito. Schmidt's injury problems are a concern, and the Orioles have heard from enough people that Zito is not interested in playing in Baltimore.

That leaves Blue Jays left-hander Ted Lilly and Seattle Mariners right-hander Gil Meche atop the Orioles' pitching wish list. Both are coming off good seasons - Lilly was 15-13, Meche was 11-8 - and will be looking at anywhere from $8 million to $10 million per year. Mark Mulder, Adam Eaton and Randy Wolf, three pitchers who are coming off injuries, also will be considered.

Most team officials agree that the biggest challenge this offseason will be finding middle-of-the-lineup hitter, just because there are so few available and the ones who are will get a ton of offers.

One industry source felt that the Orioles' best chance of landing an impact hitter resided with disgruntled New York Yankees outfielder-first baseman Gary Sheffield. Sheffield has a good relationship with Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, who managed Sheffield's uncle, Dwight Gooden, in the minors, and apparently had made it known to others that he was willing to play for the Orioles.

However, the Yankees picked up his option and wanted one of the Orioles' top young pitchers in exchange for trading their slugger within the division. The Orioles wouldn't do it and the Yankees dealt Sheffield to the Detroit Tigers on Friday.

Trading for offense

If the Orioles cannot land Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee, and two industry officials said that they considered the Orioles a long shot for either, their major offensive acquisition will come in a trade - Cincinnati's Adam Dunn reportedly could be available for the right price - or from a group of veterans that includes Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd, Luis Gonzalez, Aubrey Huff, Trot Nixon and Jay Payton, or not come at all.

Orioles officials have said little about how far the club will go to try to land Soriano or Lee. "We anticipate being in it, but you really don't know until you get there," Flanagan acknowledged last week.

Though both would give the Orioles the proven power threat that they severely lack, Lee's conditioning and defense raise concern among Orioles officials, and Soriano could price himself out of the club's plans. He reportedly is looking for a contract near the seven-year, $119 million deal that Carlos Beltran got from the Mets. According to a team source, there is virtually no chance Orioles owner Peter Angelos would pay him even close to that figure.

While not commenting specifically on Soriano, Duquette acknowledged that he doesn't feel it would be prudent for the Orioles to grossly overpay for one player.

"Very few organizations have had success when 15 to 20 percent of their payroll goes to one person. That's just not the way baseball is," Duquette said. "Many times, you're better off spreading the wealth, going out trying to get three or four guys."

Angelos, who declined to comment for this article, has said publicly that he thinks a $100 million payroll is necessary to compete in the American League East. The Orioles' payroll last season was about $72 million and is expected to rise, especially after the Orioles completed a deal for a regional sports network.

Flanagan and Duquette said that they have not been given a specific budget to work under, though they are confident that the money will be available to properly address the club's needs.

"I think we have a pretty good sense of what we need to do and how we need to get about it," Flanagan said. "There have been no restrictions put on [us]. We're looking to go out and get the best [players] available and we'll see how it ends up."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

O's free-agent targets

The Orioles will be looking to add an outfielder, first baseman, starting pitcher and several relievers starting today when teams are allowed to make contract offers to free agents. A look at some of the team's potential targets.

Player, 2006 team Pos. Key 2006 stats What it might cost Skinny

Moises Alou, Giants OF .301., 22 HRs, 74 RBIs 1 year, $8.5M When healthy, 40-year-old produces. Not top choice, but could be fallback plan.

Chad Bradford, Mets RP 4-2, 2.90 ERA 2 years, $5.5M O's like submariner, but competition for his services will be stiff.

Adam Eaton, Rangers SP 7-4, 5.12 ERA 2 years, $13M O's considered trading for him a year ago. Injury history should keep price down.

Nomar Garciaparra, Dodgers 1B .303, 20 HRs, 93 RBIs 2 years, $15M He will be wooed, but it's unlikely he'll be heading back to East Coast.

Carlos Lee, Rangers OF .300, 37 HRs, 116 RBIs 5 years, $75M O's say they are interested, but cost and his conditioning raise concerns.

Ted Lilly, Blue Jays SP 15-13, 4.31 ERA 4 years, $40M Probably top pitcher available outside Big Three of Schmidt, Zito and Matsuzaka.

Gil Meche, Mariners SP 11-8, 4.48 ERA 3 years, $25.5M Everybody loves his stuff, but his inconsistency sparks questions. O's seem undeterred.

Mark Mulder, Cardinals SP 6-7, 7.14 ERA 1 year, $6.5M O's one of a dozen teams to inquire about Mulder, whose health remains an issue.

Jay Payton, Athletics OF .296, 10 HRs, 59 RBIs 2 years, $10M He's right-handed and plays the outfield, which automatically makes O's interested.

Alfonso Soriano, Nationals OF .277, 46 HRs, 95 RBIs 6 years, $96M If he gets Carlos Beltran money, it won't be from O's, who have major selling job ahead.

Justin Speier, Blue Jays RP 2-0, 2.98 ERA 3 years, $12M O's want to snare B.J. Ryan's setup man and place him in front of Chris Ray.

Jeff Suppan, Cardinals SP 12-7, 4.12 ERA 3 years, $27M Some in organization are not convinced that playoff hero's stuff wins in AL East.

Jamie Walker, Tigers RP 0-1, 2.81 ERA 2 years, $6M Left-hander is one of a handful of relievers O's are zeroed in on.

[Jeff Zrebiec]

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